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Friday, February 23, 2024

Dispatch Near the End of an African Adventure

Big thanks to those of you who've read my recent dispatches from Africa. Bigger thanks to those who took the time to make a comment on one or more of those posts. I only wish Wi-Fi had been more consistent because every day had several moments of magic I wanted to share while they were still fresh. 

Can any picture meaningfully convey the splendor of the Chobe River separating Botswana and Namibia? Which words might help bring you close to our experience as this African adventure approaches its end? Below is the river as it looked from the porch of our cabin on the Namibia side. Chirping insects, croaking frogs, and roaring lions greeted us at night. The vibrant birdsong enchanted us on our short walk to breakfast each morning. And each trip down the river was better than the last, bringing us into close and regular contact with herds of elephants, hippos and crocodiles within yards of our boat, countless birds.

I feel fortunate to have experienced the majesty of Africa.



Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Fourth Dispatch: Walking Through a Rainbow

You read that correctly. Among the many highlights this trip has delivered, walking through a rainbow while at Victoria Falls yesterday is - at least right this moment - near the top of my list. However, if I'm able to get a Wi-Fi signal tomorrow, my next post could well declare something different as near the top because every day has had several moments of magic. 

Starting on the flight from Cape Town to Pretoria last Wednesday, I began asking the other sixteen folks on this journey for their highlights to date. As we left Zimbabwe earlier today and headed to our final location in Namibia, I began re-asking the same question. To the person, everyone I spoke with cited different highlights this second time around.  

The picture below, taken during our elephant walk in Hwange National Park, may help explain why it's difficult for any of us to land on a favorite highlight. Each day delivers a new treasure that ascends to the top of the list. 



Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Dispatch #3: District Six Museum

"Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace."  - Nelson Mandella

Hearing an eighty-five-year-old man describing what it was like for he and his family to be forcibly re-located was difficult. Walking around the District Six Museum in Cape Town and reading the first-hand testimony of countless others who had the same experience in South Africa was more difficult. Reading the words of Nelson Mandela above - a man jailed for twenty-six years for resisting the ludicrous laws the nation of South Africa imposed on him and every other non-white person beginning in 1948 - reminded me how far I still must travel to become a person of grace. 

I cannot begin to imagine what might have been in my heart had I been forced to endure what black people in South Africa did under apartheid. But I'm reasonably sure I would not have evolved into a man anything like Mandela. Perhaps the time I spent listening to this morning's lecture and then reading the testimony of others forced to live with the horror of apartheid might get me within striking distance of that kind of grace.          

Monday, February 12, 2024

Dispatch from the Tip of the World

No words can convey what it felt like today standing 4000 feet above sea level at the southernmost tip of Africa. The picture - inadequate as it is - will have to suffice. 

But as awestruck as I was by nearly every sight we saw today, the evening we just spent at an African restaurant in Cape Town called Gold could end up being even more memorable. As we sampled small plates featuring the cuisine of eleven different countries, our Road Scholar group was also treated to a vibrant musical feast. The drumming, the singing, and the expert marimba playing were augmented by acrobatic dancing, puppetry, and face painting. A peak experience.  



Friday, February 9, 2024

First Dispatch

You know that expression about the journey being as satisfying - or something - as the destination? Yeah, not so much when the journey involves a lot of time in airplane seats. 

Earlier today, it was hard to think of much besides a comfortable bed. The last long leg of our twenty-six hours of travel - a flight from London to Cape Town - was not unpleasant, per se. As people all around me seemed to effortlessly snooze - including my wife and two friends - I finished a book, watched Oppenheimer, listened to some music. I meditated, wrote in my journal, prolonged the two marginal meals that were served. My time in the air shouldn't have felt so elongated, right? But almost twelve sleepless hours in the same airplane seat - after being in a different airplane seat for half that long earlier, as well as anticipating what was still ahead after we landed in Cape Town - got me reflecting on the whole journey vs. destination bit. And then I began thinking about that bed, the one I'm headed for now.     

Second dispatch coming soon, if technology cooperates. Thanks for all your well wishes here, via e-mail, and on Facebook.   

 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Africa

Much as I've thought about it, I still can't say why visiting Africa has always appealed to me. Is there a place you've always longed to visit for no readily identifiable reason? 

If my wife and I hadn't discovered Road Scholar in 2015, the trip that we begin tomorrow might not have materialized. But my long-deferred desire to visit Africa was facilitated because of Road Scholar's enticing catalogues - BTW, we get way too many of those - and our uniformly positive experiences traveling elsewhere with them. And this trip promises to be even richer because two of our friends are joining us on the adventure.

The Road Scholar itinerary tells me there will be some long gaps in Wi-Fi service. The bell curve remains open, regardless. My plan is to reflect - and share pics - from each of the four countries we'll be visiting, where possible; stay tuned. Finally, in case anyone wondered, I got the recommended vaccinations, will be drinking mostly bottled beer - such a hardship - and plan to stay a safe distance from wildlife. All this means I should be back in full-time business sometime around February 26, jetlag dependent.     

Monday, February 5, 2024

I've Got Your Number

Based on the number of comments received on two of my posts in 2022, when readers helped me count down from 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover to One After 909 using pop culture, today's challenge is in a similar vein. I hope some of you will join the fun again. 

1.) Car 96, Where Are You?

2.) Seventy-Six Trombones

3.) 66 Tears

4.) Highway 77 Revisited 

5.) Route 54

As you can see, each pop culture reference above - TV show, song, album title - has in it a number over fifty. One of the five is correct as is. Three of the five has its correct number somewhere on this list but not in the title as noted. Start by identifying the wholly correct one and then move onto transplanting the other three numbers into the correct title. This part shouldn't be too difficult, at least for baby boomers who watched some TV and/or listened to some music growing up.  

Now for the bigger challenge. One of these five has an incorrect number that is not anywhere on this list. After identifying that one and supplying the correct number for that title - another number over fifty and, that's the easier part - then take that incorrect number and put it into the title of a popular TV show from the same era. I'll wait a bit to see if any reader gets the first four right and solves both parts of the bigger challenge for the fifth item. If no one does, I'll give a clue - BTW, this TV show was very popular in its day - in a near-future post also entitled I've Got Your Number. By then, I'll likely have more of this nonsense ready to unleash on you. Obviously, no fair using Google etc. 

If any reader solves all five/six without needing the clue, great. I'll acknowledge that in a response to the comment. In that case, the second iteration of I've Got Your Number might be on its way even sooner. Either way, the fun is just beginning

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Pop Culture Triptych: Countdown from Fifty

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Plea for More Rescuers (Start at 29, Please)

Friday, February 2, 2024

It's Back ...

Considering how many people outside of Punxsutawney ever pay attention, isn't it peculiar that of all the movies ever made about holidays few have come close to being as good as Groundhog Day?  What is your nomination for a holiday film that is the equal of Harold Ramis's goofy 1993 masterpiece?

Although I'm not a big Bill Murray fan, Groundhog Day is on the short list of films I've watched more than once. Of the several priceless bits in the movie, my favorite is probably Sonny & Cher warbling I Got You Babe on the clock radio that awakens Murray's character as he endlessly repeats February 2nd - brilliant song choice. What alternative tune would you pick as a way to aurally depict a nightmare you can't escape? My top nominations would be either one of those treacly ballads Michael Bolton screamed during his brief but painful popularity or the musical torture inflicted on us by I-get-paid-by-the-sixteenth-note Kenny G.

Musical snarkiness aside, which bit from Groundhog Day plays over and over and over in your mind? And, if you were able to repeat a single day from your life, which one would you choose?

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Words for the Ages: Line Twenty-Eight

"Nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could."

Although that lyric from Fragile owes a clear debt to Gandhi's immortal wisdom about violence, it also holds its own alongside the earlier entries in this long running series. It stands alone - i.e., no rhymes or other words are necessary -  it is terse enough to be easily remembered, and it contains an essential truth. Words for the ages. 

Now about the moniker the gifted musician who wrote that lyric chose for himself when he was young. With his fame, wealth, and insularity, I suspect Gordon Sumner gives no thought to how silly it sounds hearing a seventy-something-year-old referred to as Sting. Still, I do wonder. How many times has he endured those painful but inevitable inquiries about a first name? Do you prefer Bee, Mr. Sting? Etc. 

Thankfully, dreadful puns fade. Sting's musical legacy - including his lyric above - will not. All of his recordings in my collection occupy a rare niche. Each one works in its entirety; there are no weak cuts. And, his obvious erudition has been apparent from Sting's earliest work with the Police. How many modern-day pop lyricists can you name who have cited a Nabokov novel? Not only that, he then credibly used Vlad's name in his rhyme. Stephen Sondheim would have been proud. Got a lyric by Mr. Sumner you'd like to nominate as words for the ages? No? How about a favorite song or performance? Leave the wasp and hornet jokes for when you meet him. Go ahead, I dare you.  

Saturday, January 27, 2024

A William Styron Shoutout

From my earliest days as an insatiable reader, William Styron has been one of my favorite authors. In fact, even though I read The Long March almost sixty years ago, I can still recall the effect it had on me. If you have never read Styron, I strongly encourage you to try him.  

A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth could be the ideal place for any reader to begin a journey with this modern-day master. Because I began my book journals only fourteen years ago, I'm not sure if my recent reading of this slim volume from 1993 was the first. No matter. I'm confident saying all three vignettes in A Tidewater Morning will captivate and move you enough that you will be motivated to try one or more of Styron's longer novels. I'm planning to return soon to his Pulitzer Prize winner - The Confessions of Nat Turner - and many of you are likely familiar with his most well-known book, Sophie's Choice, one of that exceedingly rare breed, i.e., a great movie adapted from a great book. 

But whichever Styron book you choose to begin with, I hope you'll remember afterwards to contact me - via my blog or otherwise - and tell me about your experience. I welcome any opportunity that helps me extend the glow I derive from reading or re-reading his work. If you're already a Styron fan, please tell me how you got hooked. A conversation or an online interaction like that would make my day.  


Thursday, January 25, 2024

A Decade of Crabbing

Given my disappointment with two of the blockbusters that have just received Oscar nominations, my crankiness about these over-hyped marquee films seems an ideal way to mark the first appearance of your favorite crab ten years ago. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: A Crab Out Of Water 

Since 1/26/14, I've allowed my cantankerous coot - or a close crabby relative - to roam the bell curve on about twenty occasions. Several of those posts were aimed at a favorite easy target = technology. Not today. Instead, this cranky codger wants to know: Which of you on the bell curve has seen Maestro and Killers of the Flower Moon? If you haven't, stop reading and return here following the seven hours required to see both. Caveat emptor.   

If you have seen both, tell me this: In your view, are either of these two widely praised films deserving of the Oscar nominations they got? If your answer is no, you're aligned with this curmudgeon, a crank that even infrequent readers know is an indiscriminate movie junkie, a music devotee, and a Martin Scorsese fan. All that aside, if your answer is yes to my previous question, I have one favor to ask of you. Please refrain from recommending films to me. Thanks in advance. 

p.s. The eponymous David Grann book upon which Scorsese built his mess of a movie - the latter of the two above - is an extraordinary piece of non -fiction. It will take longer than three and one-half hours to read but you'll thank me, I think.  

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Such A Life

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Survivors

Ever catch yourself reflecting on survival? Specifically, given the endless number of ways people inflict pain on each other, how do some people cope with what they've endured?  

Recently - soon after being exposed to another horror story - I began spiraling into a doom loop. To escape the cloud that engulfed me, I tried meditating, playing my guitar, surrendered to mindless TV. No luck. Even a nap didn't provide the needed respite; disturbing dreams interfered.    

All of you know the kind of stories I'm referencing here. Tell me: If you'd endured and then survived a horrific ordeal like most of us have heard or read about, what do you suppose would follow? Would the pain twist you into something dark, ensuring the cycle would continue? Or would the damage of that pain instead push you to retreat from engaging with the world? 

Perhaps you see yourself following a third path, one we've all seen frequently portrayed. These folks are shaped but not defined by their unspeakable pain. They learn, become better for the experience, and the portrayals of them are designed to inspire those of us who have never survived anything like they have as well as motivate those from similar circumstances to transcend their ordeals. Although I usually succumb to the inspirational aspect of these portrayals, I'm rarely convinced I would act so heroically. 

And that part of my waking reverie about survivors left me with more questions. How many survivors have I encountered in my life? How sensitive was I as they tried to share their stories with me? What were my differing reactions to survivors from each of the three groups, i.e., the dark, the walking wounded, the thriving? What did my reactions to each of their stories say about me as a person?      


Thursday, January 18, 2024

Everything is New

Have you ever met a parent who you've never heard say their life has been richer having raised their children? If I have ever met someone like this, that person long ago disappeared from memory. How many parents have you met who name the day of their child's birth as one of the best in their life? In my experience, this is so common it's almost a cliche. But count me in, cliche or not. 

Imagining my life without my daughter is impossible. She has given me and her mother moments of nearly transcendent joy. Her light has helped me navigate several dark patches in my life. Over and over, she has shown me ways to become a better person.

Everything Is New | Patrick Barton (bandcamp.com)

Everything is new. Those three words wouldn't let me go the day my daughter was born. When I completed the song partnering with that simple phrase, I was satisfied I'd captured how those early moments of her life transformed me. Tomorrow marks thirty-five years I've been waiting for another song to visit me. But nothing has yet materialized that comes close to capturing what my daughter has brought to my life since January 19, 1989. I'll wait.

Happy birthday, sweetheart.   

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Book Club Report: Year Seven

Since beginning this series in January 2018 - exactly one year after the inception of my book club - I've been pleased to get at least a few comments each year. I'm always glad to hear from members of the club and the infrequent comments from folks who are not in the club have been a nice bonus. Thanks to all. Hope some of the rest of you will chime in this year.  

The books I selected in 2023 for the No Wine or Whiners club landed in both surprising and expected ways.  I'm slowly learning to avoid trying to anticipate how any book will land and instead adhere to my only standard for selection: Does the prose clearly show the author has spent adequate time learning their craft? Anything goes with respect to subject matter, setting, tone. The author's style, reputation, or politics - past or present - do not matter. "Classic", contemporary, or in-between = all are welcome. After noting this past year's top prize for novel and non-fiction below, if you've read something you think my club will enjoy discussing, please tell me. I'll read it. If it fits my only standard, it could end up in a future queue. If it does, thank you in advance for the suggestion. 

2023's Top Prize for Novel:  Small Things Like These - Claire Keegan (2021): The club's reaction to this tiny treasure took me by surprise. In my experience, books that whisper can easily be undervalued. I was as overjoyed as I was surprised that the club warmly embraced it. 

2023's Top Prize for Non-Fiction: Rocket Boys - Homer Hickam Jr. (1998): Although I expected this straightforward memoir to land well, I did not expect the nearly universal acclaim it garnered. In fact, it was me who had perhaps the most muted reaction to it. Can't take full credit for selecting it either; it was my wife's suggestion. I read it, found the prose sturdy and unfussy, and there you go.

See you next January.  

Monday, January 15, 2024

Living History

 I was an 18-year-old college freshman on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. 

I remember the day clearly. Walking across campus, the first question I thought to ask my closest black friend was if he hated me. He answered by saying something about how angry he was at white people that day but that no, he did not hate me. I recall being relieved. I was so young, so naive and I so wanted to be liked. Where were you that day? Who in your life was hit hardest by King's death?  

Years later, when the talk started about establishing a holiday in King's honor, I have an even clearer recollection. I thought - How can this be? I was alive when King was. How is it possible his historic importance escaped me? Was it because I was young and so self-centered? Or, is it because his place in the grander scheme wouldn't have been part of the conversation in my white world?

Did you know you were living history if you were alive when Martin was? I did not.


p.s. Sitting at my laptop early this morning, intending to write a post to honor King to start the day, I decided to first search my archives to see how much I'd referenced him over the years. Right after reading the four brief paragraphs above, I concluded I could do no better honoring King at seventy-four than I'd first done at sixty-two. I'm proud standing by these same words - verbatim - and ask you now to consider - or re-consider - some or all of the questions I first posed on January 15,2012 when my blog was less than a year old.         

Friday, January 12, 2024

Let's Be Sure, Shall We?

I'm confident attentive readers have noticed the six mid-January forays I've made into constitutional law, etc. Yeah, right. For the inattentive among you - no doubt interested in my savvy and prescience in matters constitutional - attached below is my first proposal, published in 2014. FYI, this is currently under consideration by Congressional committee. A simple search of my blog archive - using the word constitution or amendment - will quickly uncover my other brilliant proposals. Yeah, right (redux).

Reflections From The Bell Curve: XXVIII

In the meanwhile, given the circus that is about to unfold in this Presidential election year, it seems fitting to suggest some long-overlooked but obvious requirements for any presidential candidate. 

* An IQ test. At minimum, I'd feel much more confident if viable candidates were all empirically smarter than me, i.e., let's ensure we elect someone who resides at least above the middle of the bell curve, IQ-wise.

* A comprehensive test administered to all candidates regarding the contents of the U.S. Constitution. OK, my two amendments and the other stuff can be left out, if you insist. But seriously, isn't it time to ensure our Chief Executive actually knows the fundamental concepts upon which our nation was founded?

* Screening for Alzheimer's and other old-age, dementia-related ailments.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Preserving The Republic (couldn't resist providing you with another link - it's connected both to my mid-January constitutional mojo and the last bullet above, I promise) 

I'll resist getting snarky by suggesting candidates have no pending criminal indictments. But please don't let my polite reticence stop you from adding to my short list. Isn't it about time we took some prudent precautions before we elect the person who has a finger on that button none of us want to think about too much? 

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Bring On the Team

I genuinely appreciate and enjoy the before-song riffs Steve Van Zandt uses when introducing some of the music featured on the satellite radio station bearing his name. In particular, I like the serpentine fashion in which he strings together some of the wildly disparate elements contained in those riffs. I know a few listeners who think Steve overdoes it from time-to-time. Not me; I'm with him all the way, frequently laughing out loud.

At the same time, it's difficult for me not to be a little jealous of the research team I suspect is behind at least some of that seemingly effortless riffing. This mild jealousy visited me most noticeably while doing my own research for a recently developed music course I entitled Journey Through the Past: History Via Song. It felt like every rabbit hole I'd begin to innocently explore - connecting a song to a piece of or person from history - had no end. In particular, the three songs I picked as "epics" for the course (as one example, Al Stewart's Road to Moscow) made me yearn for my own team.

And that started me fantasizing about how cool it would be if each of us could have a research team at our ready disposal. If not as regularly as Steve Van Zandt, how about if we could have that luxury for one week a year? What week would you pick? I'd take the last week of the year. That way I'd have all year to advertise myself as a New Year's Eve party-starter, then use that last week to have my team ply me with material, enough to get the dullest party popping. How much do you think I could charge for my endlessly sparkling repartee? Hell, I'd offer a money-back guarantee. 

OK, maybe you don't want to monetize yourself like me. How about this instead? With that research team feeding you bon mots, puns, historical tidbits, and the like, imagine how well you could dazzle a potential romantic partner one week every year, predictably. Come on, tell me that's not enticing. 


Saturday, January 6, 2024

Gotta Love Those Collections

Walking by any collection of "free" books is difficult for me. Doesn't matter much where I am, who I'm with, how much time I've got; almost without exception, I've got to have a look. To anyone sharing my inability to bypass these collections: What treasure did you most recently uncover in this way?

Andrew's Brain is an intriguing, inventive, thoroughly modern novel. Though unsure how this 2016 gem by E.L. Doctorow escaped my attention, I suppose that's reason enough to be grateful for my compulsive need to peruse these ragtag collections. After all, I've been enthralled with Doctorow since finishing Ragtime upon its 1975 release and this late title in his oeuvre is yet another example of his massive ambition as an author. Over a long career, Doctorow tackled a dizzying array of subjects, always with an eye toward the possibilities of the novel as an art form. In this experiment, he tells the story by using a dialogue involving Andrew - a man beset by unspeakable tragedy - and an unnamed interlocutor who may be Andrew's psychiatrist or his jailer or both. 

Andrew's Brain is an early 21st journey - including 9/11 and the subsequent and futile search for those weapons of mass destruction - meticulously constructed marvel by a modern-day master. Many of my favorite authors have disappointed me at least once; not Doctorow.


Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Endlessly Re-Training the Brain

The brain is an exquisite pattern-making machine. And the more I learn about creative pioneers, the better I understand how important it is to challenge those reflexive patterns regularly.

While roaming through Taliesin West, listening to an audio narration describing architect Frank Lloyd Wright's creative process, I was simultaneously inspired and disheartened. The inspiration compelled me to take notes in the hope that small pieces of Wright's process might find a way into my own.  

The disheartening came as I reflected on how easily the brain can box us into reflexive thinking. For example, when you envision a swimming pool, what shape does your mind's eye see? Because most of us see a rectangle does not mean we are not innately creative. My years of studying creativity has taught me that our brains, having seen many rectangular swimming pools, will reflexively re-create a rectangle. If we want to harness our creativity more completely, we must intentionally force ourselves to see different shapes, hear different sounds, use different textures, i.e., break patterns. 

Wright envisioned a triangular swimming pool. This happened in part because while looking at the spot he'd selected for the pool, he let his eyes take in the background. Consequently, his design for the pool mirrored the triangular shape of the Arizona mountainside behind the spot he'd selected. This is an elegant example of someone challenging the exquisite pattern-making machine that is the brain, a machine that reflexively warns when a saber-toothed tiger is nearby at the same time that it boxes in the innate creativity residing in us. 

Sit in a different place each time you're in church. Park in a new spot on each visit to the gym, favorite coffee shop, friend's home. Put your pants on left leg first instead of right for two days or weeks or months, and then return to right leg first. Notice how breaking any mindless pattern makes you feel. After trying that, move next to breaking patterns as you paint, take photographs, write songs. Then after trying that, return here and tell me and others how doing so opened a creative door for you.


Monday, January 1, 2024

Stop - Start - Continue: 2024

What is one thing you plan to stop doing as the new year begins? One thing you plan to start doing? Something you'll continue doing?

Each New Year's Day since 2012, I've asked you to join me in this exercise. And it's been gratifying to hear from more than a few of you that the stop - start - continue model has been helpful. In my experience, doing this instead of making a single new year's resolution increases the likelihood of sustainable success. In particular, the continue piece is affirming because - as each new year begins - I'm reminding myself of a new or longstanding practice I've already integrated into my life that has been beneficial. 

In 2024, I will stop adding any new writing vessels into my life. Juggling these vessels has started to get a little out of hand.     

In 2024, I will start taking guitar lessons with a local jazz guitarist I met in 2023. 

In 2024, I will continue the regimen established with my start pledge of 2022, i.e., consistently exercising four days a week. 

Avoid getting bogged down if you struggle coming up with a stop, start, and a continue for 2024. Instead, do just two of the three. Or, at minimum, take a moment and tell me and others just what you plan to continue. What's the downside to simply congratulating yourself for a past success as a new year begins?